In honor of Black History Month we are paying tribute to some beautiful black entertainers in history. All the women listed here are inspirational people who beautiful and talented, but many of these black female entertainers also have some very interesting historical facts or firsts tied to their legacy. You know me, always trying to expose somebody to something they may not know. Enjoy!
In 1983 Vanessa Williams became the first Miss America of African American descent. During her reign she was stripped of her title when some racy photos of her were discovered and the crown was given to runner up Suzette Charles. In addition to the photo scandal, Vanessa received numerous death threats and hate mail as the fist African American winner of the crown. None of this stopped Vanessa however as she powered on and built an extremely successful career as both a Grammy Award-winning singer and an Emmy Award-winning actress.
Dorothy Dandridge was both an extremely talented dancer and singer. She was the first African American woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her 1954 leading role in the film Carmen Jones. Although a bonafide star and box office draw, Dorothy found it very difficult to get work after Carmen. Her refusal to play a slave in the 1955 movie The King and I ushered in the slow decline in her career. Ms. Dandridge died of a drug overdose in 1965 at the young age of 42.
Most fans know Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura of the original Star Trek series, but before her stint as Uhura Nichols used her considerable singing talents performing with Duke Ellington and and Lionel Hampton. Taking her tun into acting and landing the role on Star Trek, Nichols was one of the first African American women in a leading role on television. From 1966 to 1969 she played the Lieutenant and made television history in 1969 as the part of the first inter-racial kiss with, of course, Captain Kirk (William Shatner). Extremely popular within the African American community, Nichols once had to complain to Ebony magazine that thier promotion of her in their magazine had garnered her too much fan support. After cancellation of the series, Nichelle went on to star in several of the Star Trek films and in the Star Trek Universe she was awarded the title Commander in 2006.
Teresa Graves - (Get Christie Love!)
Born in 1948, Teresa Graves was a beautiful and talented actress who is credited with being the first African American woman to star in her own hour long drama television series Get Christie Love!. The show came after the made-for-television movie of the same name debuted in 1974. Teresa starred in the film, and both the film and show were based on the Christie Love character who was a private detective cut from the same cloth as Cleopatra Jones, Foxy Brown and other women during the blaxploitation era of the 70s. Although the show was short lived, Graves broke new ground for African American women.
During the 80's most men and women following R&B music knew the name Jody Watley. As part of the chart-topping gorup Shalamar, Jody provided the strong, sultry female voice that was the perfect counterpart to the croonings of popular lead singer Howard Hewitt. Jody had a very successful career with Shalamar from 1977 to 1984, but left the group to pursue her own solo career. In 1987 Ms. Watley won a Grammy for Best New Artist. Jody Watley was the Badu before Badu, known not only for her beauty but also for being a trendsetter in fashion as well as music. Jody is also publicly acknowledged for being the first Pop/R&B singer to include a rapper on the bridge of a song based on her collaboration with Eric B. & Rakim on the hit record "Friends". This comination of R&B with hip hop on the bridge became the wildly popular and duplicated formula of most commercial R&B/Hip-Hop music. Jody Watley is the 2007 winner of the Billboard Lifetime Achievement Award and is still making music today.
Eartha Kitt - (Catwoman)
Any young black boy growing un in the 60's would be lying if they said they didn't have a crush on Catwoman. The character played by Eartha Kitt in the 1960's Batman television series was one of the sexiest portrayals of a villain back then or today. The sexy snarl, and the hiss she made with every pronounced "S" was enough to make anyone turn to a life of crime. If the voice din't immediately captivate you, certainly the skin-tight black leather bodysuit did.
Although the Catwoman character certainly brought her a level of notoriety and enduring fame, Eartha Kitt was much more than just a villain in a TV show. Eartha Kitt's career spanned more than 50 years and she was a bonafide international star who distinguished herself in film, theater, cabaret and music in addition to television. Miss Kitt was nominated for numerous awards throughout her career to include 3 Tony Awards, 2 Grammy nominations and Two Emmys.
Eartha's career started in nightclubs back in the early 1950's, where her talents were soon discovered; leading her to the Broadway stage. She was cast in the production "New Faces of 1952" which exposed a broad audience to her sultry voice. As a result Eartha became a major recording star and created hits to include "Love For Sale", "I Want to be Evil" and "Santa Baby".
During the early 2000's Kitt made a legion of new fans, using her distinctive voice to play villian YMZA, in the Disney animated film "The Emperor's New Groove". She won the 2001 Annie Award for Best Vocal Performance / Animated Feature for that performance and reprised the role in the sequel and subsequent television series - winning the 2007 and 2008 Annies for Best Vocal Peroformance in a Television Production.
If you said Pam Grier was the sexiest woman alive during the 70's you wouldn't get much debate. Pam Grier became an instant legend with her portrayals of iconic characters to include the unforgettable "Foxy Brown". During the "blaxploitation" period of the 70's Grier appeared in 17 films, cementing her place in black movie history. Although the 80's and 90's ushered in a new era in film, Grier continued to act and seemed to get more beautiful with age. She won a new legion of fans in the late 90's thanks to her portrayal of Jackie Brown, which led to several award nominations including a Golden Globe and NAACP Image Award. Pam Grier is stll acting and looking as beautiful as ever. This icon of the seventies truly stands the test of time.
Josephine Baker (born Freda Josephine McDonald in 1906) is truly a legendary beauty, earning nicknames such as the "Bronze Venus" and the "Black Pearl". She made her mark as a dancer and got her career started early as she was recruited from a life of homelessness to the vaudeville stage at the age of 15. By 1925 her talents made her the highest paid chorus girl in vaudeville. Baker went to France to perform and it is there that the legend of Josephine Baker took shape. She was widely admired for her erotic dancing, sensual appeal and exciting showmanship. At the peak of her career she was the most popular American entertainer in France and as much as the french loved her she loved them. She became a French citizen in 1937 and became heavily involved in french affairs during the next several years.
Although Baker enjoyed fame and success overseas over time she was loved and coveted by millions of Americans and her legend has continued to grow in the U.S. A staunch civil rights activist, Baker was the only woman to speak at the 1963 March on Washington, standing side by side with Martin Luther King Jr. Today Miss Baker stands as a symbol of African American beauty past and present.
Joyce Bryant was so beautiful she was dubbed as "the Black Marilyn Monroe" and the "Bronze Blond Bombshell". Known for her amazing singing voice, hourglass figure and stunning outfits, Miss Bryant commanded $3,500 per appearance at the height of her turbulent career. Legend has it, when she was to appear on a bill with Josephine Baker, Joyce decided not to be outdone and to distinguish herself in the legend’s presence, Bryant draped a floor length silver mink coat over a skin tight silver gown, painted her nails silver, and colored her hair silver with radiator spray paint, a choice that would become her signature. As Bryant recalls the story, the singer told jet magazine (which she appeared in often) she came up with the look on an Easter Sunday while living in Los Angeles. Having agreed to perform at a benefit concert, she was dead broke with no money to buy an Easter hat she “grabbed the can of radiator paint” and “happened to have a silver dress” and when she walked on stage to sing she was met with “wild applause”. As controversial as her professional life was, her personal life was equally turbulent. After several ups and downs Ms. Bryant left show business in 1955 due to her strict religious background and pressure from her family. To read more about Joyce Bryant, read this excellent article.
Fred Sanford loved her and so did millions of other people. Well known for her signature performance of the song "Stormy Weather", Lena was an actress and a dancer as well as a singer. Horne joind the Cotton Club when she was 16 years old and performed in nightclubs before she moved to Hollywood to pursue her acting career. Although a very good actress Horne never got her acting career off the ground mostly due to racism of the time not allowing black women to be seen in films across the South. A staunch civil rights activist, Lena participated in the 1963 March on Washington and remained a staunch civil rights activist afterward. Partly because of her activist political stance Horne found it very difficult to get acting roles and eventually found herself blacklisted.
Although Horne retired in 1980, she returned from retirement to star in a the one-woman show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, which ran for more than three hundred performances on Broadway and earned her numerous awards and accolades. Lena Horne passed away in 2010 and is widely revered as one of the first ladies of show businesses.
There are so many ladies of note that I did not get to profile in this post. Here are just a few African American women more than worthy of a profile here.
Leave me a comment with other entertainers and we can profile them in this post same time next year!
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